Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Cracks in the Wall, Part III: Escape Ladders

by Sara Robinson

Assorted polls -- usually focused around questions such as belief in evolution, strict opposition to all abortion, self-identified fundamentalism, voting patterns, and so on -- have in recent years put the number of hard-core religious and political conservatives at somewhere between a quarter and a third of American voters. Wherever the number actually falls within that range, there are certainly enough of them in the voting base to dominate our political landscape. (To put it in a historical perspective: in 1932, when Hitler was elected president of the Reichstag, the Nazi party was consistently garnering 31 to 38 percent of the German vote. That's all it takes for an organized, passionate group to take control of a country.)

I've looked in vain for hard evidence that these percentages have grown or declined in the past 30 years (and would appreciate a pointer to this kind of data if it exists). However, there's no doubt that this group carries far more clout when it comes to defining our politics, our economics, and our culture than they've had at any point in the past 80 years. Good political organizing, coupled with the fulsome noise of the Mighty Wurlitzer, have indeed added former liberal constituencies -- blue-collar workers, Catholics, and so on -- to the Republican column. Many of these former moderates were drawn into the far-right fold by targeted political messaging that played up their fears and activated (to at least some degree) the fear-and-submission response characteristic of right-wing followers, as well as expansion-oriented conservative religious groups that replaced fraying community, family, social, recreational, and personal support networks.

Which is not to say that there weren't very real reasons for increasing levels of social fear. In Wealth and Democracy, Kevin Phillips laid out the economic fact that American middle-class prosperity peaked in 1972, and has been in decline ever since. For all but the richest, the dollars (in real terms) are fewer, and they don't go as far as they used to. In the late 70s, decades of misbegotten foreign policy in the Middle East came home to roost, shattering a sense of American invulnerability that had already been severely dented by Vietnam. By the early 80s, Reagan's promise of "morning in America" sounded forced -- but a disheartened and newly fearful middle class was eager to believe. 9/11, of course, put whole new factions of the country into a fear-induced malaise. Republican messaging since the mid-70s has kept all these threats uppermost in the American imagination, creating a climate of fear that supports authoritarian thinking even in people who should know better. And, as mentioned above, Republican hostility to any kind of investment in social capital has left these people a) enraged at the foreclosure of opportunities their parents took for granted and b) left with nowhere to turn but churches.

All these issues, and others, provided ripe openings for the disciplined organizers of the authoritarian right. It's like they've slapped stick-on hot buttons onto all of us -- and now keep pushing them for all they were worth to activate a Pavolvian fear response. ("Abortion! Faggots! Affirmative action! Brown people! Flag-burning!") There has always been -- and probably always will be -- a hard core of natural authoritarian leaders and followers in any society. But their numbers have almost certainly been swelled (my non-supportable guess is that it's been at least doubled) by tens of millions of "soft-core" authoritarians who've been shanghaied onto the authoritarian bandwagon over the past three decades.

John Dean tells us that we are not likely to change the hearts of the authoritarian leaders. And their hardest-core followers may be lost causes, too: most of them grew up with that model, have lived their entire lives by it, and in many cases have been so damaged by it that getting them to accept any other way of viewing reality is likely to be futile.

However, those two factions probably don't comprise even half of the current horde that's commandeered our country. And the rest -- the "normal folks" who got swept up in the right-wing hysteria of the past three decades -- have already demonstrated a certain fluidity: many of them have crossed the Wall once already and have at least some memory of life on the other side. Not all of them will return, of course (though it's always surprising to see which ones decide to make the jump) -- but bringing a good slice of this group back may not be as hard as we've been prone to think.

The experiences described by people who've left authoritarian religious systems point to possible ways we might convince individual authoritarians (of whatever type) to at least take a peek over onto our side of the Wall. This installment talks about some of the ways we can create the conditions that will encourage individual authoritarians to come take that look.

Save Your Breath
The angry hard-core authoritarians -- especially those raised in acutely authoritarian homes, and those with a long history of active participation in authoritarian movements -- are not likely to be interested in reality-based thinking. And people with a long history of addiction may actually do better in the highly-structured, rule-bound culture of authoritarianism -- at least, until they do the hard work of resolving their core issues. Remember the old caution about pigs and singing lessons, and be realistic about your limits.

On the other hand (and as a gross generalization), there are a few groups of people who are more likely to be open to change. Women, whose worldview tends to be more nurturant and relationship-oriented, may be more open than men to liberal points of view. Even those who've spent their entire lives in authoritarian systems get frustrated at times with their lack of power and privilege, the unfairness of the men who outrank them, and the overt bullying. In addition, women are generally less conforming than men, and more likely to reject one-size-fits-all moral systems in favor of ones they see as more just and fair.

People who are under stress without a support system -- college students, single mothers, travelers, prisoners -- are often open to anyone offering ideas for how they can increase their sense of security and connectedness. While this drives many of them straight into waiting authoritarian arms, it could just as easily become an opportunity for them to learn to trust their own inner authority instead.

Those undergoing major life transitions may be similarly receptive: the newly married, new parents, the recently relocated, career or job-changers, the newly divorced or widowed, people who've just lost a parent, and the recently retired are all in positions where the old answers are up for questioning, and the prospect of the larger world outside the wall may look very welcoming. And, of course, people undergoing major self re-creations -- emerging gays and lesbians, new immigrants, and those in the midst of large-scale socioeconomic change -- are likely to be very open to new way of strengthening their confidence, and learning to navigate their brave new worlds.

Fear Is The Mind-Killer
In talking to right-wing authoritarians (RWAs) -- in any situation -- the first and greatest challenge is to reduce the level of fear and increase the level of trust. They cannot hear or see you at all until this happens. A few thoughts on how to accomplish this:

Stand on Common Ground -- Keep the conversation focused on the things you agree on. You may find more in common than you might have imagined, especially with "classical conservatives" who are outraged by the Bush Administration's spending, foreign policy blunders, and neglect of important domestic infrastructure. (Small businesspeople, in particular, can give you a real earful.) Move away from potential areas of conflict as soon as they appear, or state your position in a non-threatening way and then move right back to the safe zone. Remember, you're trying to reduce fear, not arouse it.

Avoid Ambiguity (yourself) -- The liberal penchant for seeing life in infinite shades of grey annoys the hell out of conservatives in general, and authoritarians most particularly. It's the main reason they think we don't stand for anything. "It depends" is not an answer they find comfort in, and long explanations are seen as obfuscation, not clarification.

Yet there are things we do believe in -- fervently, and with great passion. We should not be afraid to state our moral principles, especially the ones that can be fairly articulated in near-absolutes and with a certain amount of zeal. They're impressed by zeal, and are often surprised to find that we have our own share of it. If you can unambiguously and firmly state a principle that you share with the RWA (marriage, family, and community are great topics for this kind of commonality), you'll find them warming to you quickly.

Affirm Ambiguity (in them) -- Once in a while, you'll hear the RWA start to give a long, hairsplitting answer (for, in sooth, many of their odder theories of the world have no short explanation). In these moments, they're embracing exactly the kind of ambiguity they usually go way out of their way to avoid (and criticize in us). When this happens, note it: "You're so right. This world is a pretty complicated place, and the answers aren't always easy, are they?" The key here is to create a comfortable, easy, give-and-take atmosphere in which reasonable people can reason together -- and remain friends even if they don't agree on the ultimate answer.

This isn't an experience that most RWAs are used to having, even within their own precincts. Having it with someone who can be fairly classified as the enemy can be a life-changing experience, for reasons I'll discuss further below.

Appeal to "Legitimate" Authorities -- When citing authorities, try wherever possible to refer to authorities they recognize as legitimate. RWAs have far more respect for established authority than liberals do; but, at the same time, they usually don't accept our reality-based authorities (and often hold them in total contempt). The only way around this is to support your points by finding and citing authorities they accept.

You need to get creative here. An RWA may not regard Al Gore as an acceptable authority on the environment; but Richard Nixon (who passed the Endangered Species Act, and founded the EPA) might well be.

If you must quote an authority they're likely to regard as dubious, do what you can to establish that sources' bona fides. "Did you know that Bill Moyers is a Southern Baptist minister?" It won't always work among the harder core -- Moyers isn't in the SBC now, and therefore has forfeited any authority he may have had -- but for the softer core, this at least puts a little grease on the ball. If you can't find a direct source they'll respect, at least try to find a source that's been vetted and given the Seal of Approval by someone they do trust.

For religious RWAs, there's nothing more authoritative than God's own literal words. Biblical literalists are often astonished when a knowledgeable liberal starts quoting unfamiliar passages back at them. While they've usually been inoculated by their preachers with "correct" interpretations of difficult passages, the fundie reading of the Bible is highly selective, and it's not hard to find passages they're completely unaware of. They may not like it -- but they've got no choice but to accept it, at least until their pastor can "set them straight" again. If the pastor can't do that (they're only trained to respond to the most common objections), then you've undermined the pastor's omniscient authority, and set up a pattern of questioning that may not stop until the RWA is safely on the other side of the wall. (A large subset of ex-fundamentalists started their exodus just this way.)

Keep it Literal
As I mentioned in the last post, fundies (and most other flavors of authoritarian) do not think in abstracts. While they can usually summon empathy for people in their own belief communities -- people who are very much like them -- they have a very hard time imagining themselves in the shoes of people who are different. And the greater the difference, the harder this is.

This inability to empathize makes it very easy to demonize outsiders, accuse them of all manner of vile motives and outrageous actions, and eventually move toward dehumanization and eliminationism. In turn, this can come back around to feed a very active persecution complex. The fear that results from this failure of imagination is the driving force that keeps them huddled behind that Wall.

This is why it's important to keep any critiques of ideas and people as personal and literal as possible. You need to draw a clear, bright line connecting the negative personal harm that particular RWA has sustained as the direct result of a policy, and the specific leader who implemented it. As we know all too well, there's no limit to the amount or degree of abuse a determined RWA will forgive; but making people see the concrete damage their leaders are inflicting on them personally may in time re-direct their sense of persecution, and undermine the legitimacy of their accepted authorities.

Literal, personal critiques work in a wide range of situations. They're useful in getting across the effects of bad policy, the policies of bad leaders, hypocrisies and contradictions, and inaccurate information. Any time you can frame a point in terms of, "This person/policy/action has harmed you , this much and in this way," you're more likely (though still far from certain) to get your point across. If you can't say, with proof, that "Bush did this to you, you probably won't get through.

It's important to note that positive attributes can also be presented this way. "We should do this because it's fair to minorities" cuts no ice at all with RWAs. "We should do this because it's in your own self-interest" will get you a lot farther. And don’t neglect to spell out every possible benefit, as clearly and specifically as possible. Don't assume they'll make the logical leaps to see those on their own. These are very concrete thinkers: leaping isn't their strong suit.

Sometimes, keeping communication personal and literal can even short-circuit the guilt-evaporation mechanisms Dean discussed. God may have forgiven you, or you may have just been doing what you were told and following the rules, or the person who harmed you may merit forgiveness -- but the fact remains that your actions (or a third party's) have demonstrably harmed someone who matters to you, or created problems in your own life. Absolution may clear your conscience, but it doesn't clean up the mess. Associate personal actions with their direct results, and you may stand a chance of making them realize the full brunt of their behavior.

Be an Enlightened Witness
The great psychologist Alice Miller, who did seminal work on the role child abuse plays in shaping authoritarian personalities, often discussed the importance an "enlightened witness" plays in preventing an abused child from becoming an amoral or abusive adult:

"When I began to illustrate my thesis by drawing on the examples of Hitler and Stalin, when I tried to expose the social consequences of child abuse, I encountered fierce resistance. Repeatedly I was told, "I, too, was a battered child, but that didn't make me a criminal." When I asked for details about their childhood, I was always told of a person who loved them, but was unable to protect them. Yet through his or her presence, this person gave them a notion of trust, and of love.
"I call these persons helping witnesses. Dostoyevsky, for instance, had a brutal father, but a loving mother. She wasn't strong enough to protect him from his father, but she gave him a powerful conception of love, without which his novels would have been unimaginable. Many have also been lucky enough to find enlightened and courageous witnesses, people who helped them to recognize the injustices they suffered, to give vent to their feelings of rage, pain and indignation at what happened to them. These persons never became criminals."

The enlightened witness not only affirms the child's better character; s/he also models a higher standard of behavior. Dave has often discussed the importance of providing a clear, positive standard of expected community behavior as the first response to hate crime or petty terrorism. The offenders must understand, in no uncertain terms, that they are not expressing the will of the community, and that their actions are considered unacceptable. As far back as Stanley Milgram's study, it's been understood that people are far less likely to misbehave -- and far more likely to rise to the expected standard -- if someone else is there upholding a higher moral standard.

RWAs are sadly accustomed to subordinating their own needs to those of their superiors; in fact, one of the struggles we often see in recovering fundies is a complete inability to even acknowledge that they have needs of their own, let alone identify them, let alone act to meet them. They simply don't know where to begin. Also, because their own authorities use guilt and shame to control them, they've seldom been allowed to see themselves as truly good and moral people.

Giving an RWA permission to recognize, give voice to, and take action to satisfy his or her own needs is a powerful act. In affirming that they are not just allowed, but entitled (in the name of fairness) to feel their own emotions, own their own goodness, indulge a few harmless appetites, enjoy themselves, assert their boundaries, or stand up and say "no" to overweening authority, you are being an enlightened witness to their true self -- something many of them have seldom if ever had. In the process, you are also giving them a direct view over the wall. Often, it's a view that they never forget, and will keep coming back to until they're persuaded to go over it for good.

This admittedly requires a strong belief in our own best liberal ideals -- most particularly, in meeting with people where they are, and dealing with them as they are. If they believe that their goodness and strength flow from the grace of God, don't quibble. At least they're focusing on their strength, instead of leading with their fear! They have a right to whatever moral context they're comfortable with. It's the core of their moral reasoning, and often of their identity.

Focus on the Family
We need to be having much more open conversations with the RWA community about our views on family. Weird as it sounds, they honestly, literally believe that we don't care about families, don't really have them ourselves, and are out to destroy theirs as well. I know, it sounds ridiculous -- but it's true.

The best writing on this I've seen comes from Unitarian writer Doug Muder, who has taken George Lakoff's model of "strict father" versus "nurturant parent" politics one step further, and uses it to explain precisely how the right wing came to believe this preposterous notion. (Hat tip to the estimable Trefayne.) Muder asserts that, while Lakoff's right that family models are the right frame, the real dialectic is between families of "inherited obligation" versus those based on "negotiated commitment". Go read the article, then come on back. We'll be here.

Muder's thesis highlights very specifically where and why our divergent models of family lead to disagreements on everything from abortion to homosexuality (and also answers our exasperated questions about how these particular issues became such hot political potatoes in the first place). At the same time, it also points up the places in which we have strong commonalities with RWAs that they don't typically see. For example, authoritarians typically don't believe that those of us who assemble families of choice feels as committed to those families as those who are bound to their kin by blood ties and birth. And they tend to view "family" as a stage script, with set roles for mothers and fathers and grandparents. If you don't have people filling all the roles, it is, by definition, not a family.

Being aware of the way RWAs model and value their families allows us to present our own family values in ways that they can begin to understand. There is a lot of common ground here, most of which they're apparently totally unaware of. It also gives us a clear view of the ways in which progressive "negotiated commitment" families can indeed be seen as a threat to their worldview. With this understanding, we can begin to acknowledge those fears directly, address them head-on, and perhaps begin to defuse one of their biggest sources of fear and mistrust.

Make the World Bigger
Anything that gets RWAs interacting with people outside their narrow realm is a good thing. Travel, formal or informal education, community interactions with unknown and feared groups (especially those based on shared concerns, interests, and values), and activities that increase a sense of personal achievement and competence all enhance their ability to trust themselves and others, without having to rely on the rules of their system to maintain their fragile sense of safety.

If we're serious about reducing the number of authoritarians in our midst, we need to greatly increase the number and frequency of our engagements with them. As noted in Part II, are very literal thinkers, and capable of tremendous loyalty. An RWA who knows just one gay person, up close and personal, often finds that their sense of loyalty will force them to resist their leaders' generalizations of gays as evil. The more contact they have with the demonized Other, the greater the cognitive dissonance grows, and the more their accepted authorities are discredited.

We need to actively start creating ways for the authoritarians in our midst to make contact with people outside of their cocooned communities. The means and methods are many; but this is perhaps the most important work we can do. Start by committing random acts of kindness (just to mess with their assumptions, if nothing else). They need to see us as trustworthy allies, valuable contributors to their own well-being -- and perhaps, in time, friends.

Landing Zones
Finally: we need to make safe landing zones for those just arriving from the other side of the Wall.

It takes courage, time, and support to come out of an authoritarian mindset. Most RWAs are used to having people tell them what to think, where to be, what to do, and who to trust. In the reality-based world, we tend to assume that people can do this for themselves. While exiting fundies typically feel exhilarated with the freedom they feel in the first weeks after leaving; they've also got a huge new world to navigate, and acquiring the necessary skills takes time. They're often wobbly on their feet for a while until they get the hang of it.

There is the emotional work of learning to trust your own perceptions, accept your own feelings, and act on your own judgment -- something people in authoritarian systems never really learn to do. There's also the business of learning to navigate in a looser, more do-your-own-thing social structure, which can be hard for someone used to ready-made social hierarchies. There are the practical matters of telling family and friends on the other side of the Wall that you've left, and coming to terms with their reactions. There's all the work involved in sorting through all your new intellectual and moral options, and deciding for yourself which values you're going to build your new life on.

It helps tremendously to have friends and guides who understand what you're going through, and can supply guidance and hugs when it all seems overwhelming. They are far more likely to succeed if we offer them consistent (but not hovering) friendship and support -- and a bit of patience while they make their first steps into the reality-based world.

Micro to Macro
The above discussion, long as it is, is just a beginning. The more time we spend talking to soft-core authoritarian followers, the better we'll get at understanding their motivations, calming their fears, and framing our arguments in ways they can clearly understand.

However: as kum-bay-yah (and stereotypically liberal) as all this talk of "understanding" individual RWAs may be, it doesn't mean that we stop holding the authoritarians in our midst accountable for the misbehavior of their public figures and the recklessness of their policies. It doesn't mean that we stop correcting the media when it misrepresents our views, or aggressively fight for solutions that will ultimate break the cycle of right-wing authoritarianism that now dominates American politics. While the work of bringing these missing Americans back into the larger fold is gentle and slow (we may well spend a decade or more bringing the bulk of them back), the work of recovering America as we knew her requires a fierce energy that draws firm boundaries, demands an honest reckoning, and requires constant and determined assertion of our own good values.

In the fourth and final part of this series, I'll look at some of the ways authoritarians can be turned back at the community, state, and national level.

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